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Subtle Forms of Discrimination Driving Women of Color from Top Law Firms

Well seems the more things change the more they stay the same.

Date: Monday, August 07, 2006
By: Monica Lewis, BlackAmericaWeb.com

In Showtime’s now-defunct series, “Soul Food,” Nicole Ari Parker’s character, the high-powered attorney Teri Joseph, eagerly anticipated being anointed a partner in her law firm after landing a very prestigious client. Despite logging long hours and providing top-quality work, Teri was, in some words, told that the Old Boys’ Club wasn’t opening its door to her anytime soon.

Art, indeed, imitates life. A recent study by the American Bar Association and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago supports the notion, reporting that women of color frequently experience subtle forms of discrimination, prompting them to leave lucrative and coveted jobs with some of the nation’s best law firms.

Examples listed in the report, released Friday during the bar association’s annual convention in Honolulu, include a white male partner looking past a black lawyer, assuming she is clerical staff, a Native American attorney being asked where she keeps her tomahawk and an Asian attorney being referred to as a “dragon lady” when she asserts herself, according to the Associated Press.

Vicky Lovell, study director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., said it’s unfortunate that in 2006, women of color are still being subjected to such behavior in the workplace.

“It’s very disturbing that women of color face so many wide-spread obstacles,” Lovell told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “It’s an unpleasant reminder that old problems still exist, and that women can do everything they can to succeed, but the game is still stacked against them.”

Entitled “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” the study was based on questionnaires received from nearly 1,000 attorneys, both men and women. It found that law firms regularly excluded women of color from employment-based networking events, including golf outings and after-work happy hours.

The report claims that bigotry played a role in such exclusions, but so did the fact that partners and senior associates had little in common with women of color, a feeling that made it somewhat difficult to connect with them.

Such a divide may be a reason why firms regularly issued women of color inferior assignments, such as reviewing documents or writing briefs, the study showed, offering little chance for minority female attorneys to interact with clients. This interaction is crucial in cultivating business relationships and accruing “billable hours,” the basis of career advancement with many firms.

“We’re not even talking about trying to get up through a glass ceiling; we’re trying to stay above ground,” the Associated Press quoted Paulette Brown, co-chairwoman of the group that produced the study, as saying to convention attendees.

Brown added that many instances of discrimination go without reprimand, leaving some women of color to leave to pursue other options. According to 2005 data from the National Association of Law Placement, 81 percent of minority female associates left their jobs within five years of being hired, up from 75 percent in the late 1990s.

Attorney Loreal McDonald is one of the many who left behind a premier law firm to pursue other avenues.

“Having the opportunity to practice law at a large firm can be exceptionally rewarding if there are reasonable and accessible measures in place to engender success, balance and equity,” McDonald, a graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

“Certainly, as an associate at a law firm, it is your job to produce a consistently impeccable work product,” said McDonald. “However, if such reasonable and accessible measures are not in place, even the brightest and most dedicated associate will eventually encounter difficulties that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual work load assigned to him.”

Lovell said it’s discouraging to know that white male attorneys say they’re unaware of such behaviors that appear to prevent minority female attorneys from moving up the ladder of success at law firms.

“The level of awareness seems so low that a lot of these lawyers think there isn’t a problem,” Lovell told BlackAmericaWeb.com, adding that a diverse base of attorneys can be an attractive lure for clients.

“It’s amazing that these behaviors are able to persist, even when it’s not in the best interest of the firms,” Lovell said, adding that she hopes law firms will implement better ways to monitor the treatment of all female attorneys.

“There has to be some accountability so that somebody can keep an eye on whether women of color are being treated fairly,” Lovell said. “If they aren’t, then someone should be held responsible.”


Posted by loni on 08/09 at 01:12 PM in News

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